music / Columns

The Top 250 Songs Of The 2010s (#20-1): Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, More

May 27, 2020 | Posted by David Hayter

At long last it is time to reveal the top 20 songs of the 2010s, but before we do, don’t forget to catch up on PART ONE,  PART TWOPART THREE, PART FOUR and PART FIVE.

THE CRITERIA:

To keep this countdown from getting too repetitive I am introducing a ONE TRACK PER ARTIST limit.

When it comes to picking tracks we’ll have an eye on cultural impact and importance as well as strict artistic quality. So while there will be album cuts from classic albums that capture an artist’s aesthetic or core message, more often than not these songs will be evocative of the decade at large.

So expect this list to be light on insular or intentionally alienating works (sorry 2010s Metal), while including a fair share of one hit wonders that captured the moment. The goal is to tell the story of the decade in sound.

To put everything perspective I have a 400 artist shortlist! This was an incredibly difficult task, but without further ado let’s get underway.

VOTE FOR YOUR TOP 10 TRACKS OF THE 2010S: PLEASE SUBMIT AN ORDERED LIST FROM 1-TO-10 FOR OUR READERS POLL.

20. Rosalia – “Malamente” (2018)

Pop music became truly globalised in the 21st Century, but if the 2000s were defined by Western superstars experimenting with the sounds of Africa, India and beyond, then the 2010s heralded the arrival of the genuine article. From Bashment and afrobeat to K-Pop and the Latin revival, a new generation of International stars were taking the charts by storm entirely on their own terms and in their own native tongue. The Internet had finally obliterated the artificial barriers of language and distribution that kept foreign language stars at arms length.

Rosalia’s ultra-modern spin on traditional Flamenco felt otherworldly in its brilliance when it arrived on English speaking shores. Here was a woman with Bjork’s flair for contorted balladry, but also the most delightfully crooked and danceable club rhythms. Best of all, Rosalia’s experimentation and genre fusion always kept its eye on the charts. She was a bone fide superstar in her native Spain, the perfect hybrid of the outsider auteur and the modern hitmaker. “Malamente” proved unstoppable: aesthetically impeccable, ice cool in its production, classical in its flamenco rhythms and undeniably addictive in its half-whispered hooks. If the Latin Pop revival had been defined by a soft sunny naffness, then “Malamente” was here to provide the edge and impetus. This was not the sound of a beach holiday, but a tour of Catalonia’s back streets and bars.

19. LCD Soundsystem – “Home” (2010)

“Home” is masterpiece and probably James Murphy’s most unashamedly heartfelt statement. The scene of his youth has passed him by – if not faded from existence entirely. His New York City has been boarded up and painted over (hey, didn’t that vape shop used to be our favorite bar?). His friends are drifting away, moving on and settling down. In many ways he is alone, a man caught between the romanticism of youth and the cynicism of having been there and done that. He is experiencing the worst of both worlds. He lacks the energy of a young man, he looks old and ridiculous at the new hot spots, and yet, he’s still in a band and has none of the stability or respectability of his newly professional and married off peers.

The clock cannot and should not be turned back but, for one last shining moment, Murphy and his loved ones are going to “stumble into the night”, shut out their woes and dance like they’re 17 all over again. “Home” is not a nostalgic song, it is entirely accepting of the changes that are taking place. Instead, this is one last hurrah. The formation of a final immortal memory. The chance to climb into the shoes of those beautiful trailblazers that we once were, perhaps the very last time. The old friends are resplendent, romantic, carefree and more than a little tearful, but after the glory of a youth relived, Murphy forces his pals to make one solemn promise:

“You might forget, forget the sound of a voice/Still, you should not forget, yeah, don’t forget, the things that we laughed about”

…and therein lies the beauty. It’s not the Instagram worthy snaps and it’s certainly not the details that matter: it’s the in jokes, anecdotes and silly little asides that immortalize a friendship and stick with you long after you and your buddies have grown old and apart.

An impossible decision to exclude: “Dance Yrslf Cln” and “American Dream”

18. Bat For Lashes – “Laura” (2012)

Natasha Kahn swung for the fences on her hotly anticipated third album, The Haunted Man. Elevating seemingly every aspect of her hippie dippy, mournful-but-mystical sound, Bat For Lashes was embracing a new found severity as she tried to break into the pantheon of elite female songwriters and popstars (Bush, Amos, Mitchell, et al). Self-seriousness and tasteful compositions are worthless if you cannot channel this newfound profundity into soaring, searing narratives and truly powerful start-to-finish pop songs. Enter “Laura”, the simple piano-driven story of Natasha’s heartbroken friend dressing up in her finest clothes, heading out to a party and tearing through it like a resplendent hurricane. The tragedy and soulfulness lies in Natasha’s awestruck admiration. Her friend is in agony, her every gesture is an expression of her internal turmoil, but she remains beautiful, poised, perfect and transcendent – “you’ll be famous for longer than them, your name is tattooed on every boys’ skin”.

“Laura” is the embodying angel of rising above scorn. She has become a shining monument, the flaming wreckage of a crashed car inspiring awe and drawing eyes with strange, slavish devotion. Where others would crumble (Natasha certainly suggests that she’d be a tear-stained mess in her friend’s shoes), “Laura” strides out in the highest of heels to dance atop tables and sing loudly and proudly alongside her best friends. Her bravery is as uplifting as it is tragic . The cry for help recast as the tower of strength.

17. Tame Impala – “The Less I Know The Better” (2015)

Heartbreak and dejection makes for the most fantastic pop music. The record industry’s foundations are built on the hopes, dreams and salty tears of naive young lovers (so it’s hardly a spoiler to let slip that there are plenty of bitter break ups yet to come in this countdown). What sets Tame Impala apart is that their story of a young man building himself up only to be passed over and dismissed is soundtracked by the most sumptuous of slow swinging arrangements. Kevin Parker has no interest in performative depression or teenaged moping, instead his anthem of obsessive yearning is brought to life as delusional psychedelic dreamscape. The vocals are pure reportage, Kevin witnesses his dream girl leaving the dancefloor in the arms of another man, but rather than diving into despair he starts rewriting reality around him. At the very moment he should fall to the floor, he’s lifted up by a marriage of soupy 70s guitar grooves and twinkling, resplendent synths.

The juxtaposition is sublime and would prove remarkably stark where it not for Parker’s eerily controlled falsetto. He might be being rejected, but in his imagination he knows that give it ten years and they will be together. The result is a blissed out anti-reality where Kevin can float on a cloud even as he details his pitiable downfall: “Someone said they left together. I ran out the door to get her. She was holding hands with Trevor. Not the greatest feeling ever”. Tame Impala’s playing is so seductive and intuitive that the listener really has to focus to discover just how pitiful and heartbreaking “The Less I Know The Better” truly is. Someone needs to put his arm round Parker’s shoulders and tell him, “mate, it’s never going to happen”, because he’s pinning his hopes on an impossible fantasy, albeit an ungodly alluring one.

An impossible decision to exclude: “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”

16. Emmy The Great – “Trellick Tower” (2011)

Hooks are great, beats are brilliant, dance moves are fun, but at the end of the day nothing quite compares to a compelling narrative and no song in the 2010s tells a more heartbreaking tale than “Trellick Tower”. Emmy The Great’s autobiographical anthem is almost too painful to be believed. It’s the stuff of Academy Award movies or Graham Greene novels. She was head over heels in love, living with her partner and planning their life together – and then he left. He didn’t choose another woman, he didn’t get cold feet and he certainly isn’t a coward. Instead he found God, became a missionary, embraced a higher calling and left Emmy alone in the wreckage of her former life, sitting in a small room at the top of their council estate. She goes through every emotion, but the tragedy lies in the fact that she is stuck. She remains, dutifully reminding the world that this man existed and  preserving the artefacts of their former life inspite of his absence. He is not dead and he cannot be mourned. She can’t even really be mad at him and it is so cripplingly hard to move on. She exists in limbo, praying that this absurd turn of events could be undone. “Trellick Tower” is a master work that deserves a much larger audience, unfortunately is as high as could plausibly place this devastatingly beautiful tearjerker.

15. Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars – “Uptown Funk” (2014)

You will get absolutely no argument form me if “Uptown Funk” sits atop your list. In 2014 Mark Ronson sculpted the perfect never-ending onslaught of hooks, cocksure swagger and pulverising dancefloor funk. Full of knowing nods to the past but, like Ronson’s best work, “Uptown Funk” is charged by an ultra-modern immediacy. There is no wasted movement. Every grunt, horn, drum beat and backing vocal hits with ungodly force and yet, miraculously, this never ending bombardment of 70s inspired hooks never feels overbalanced. Ronson achieves perfect equilibrium even as he throws the kitchen sink at the listener. Oh and then there’s the little matter of Bruno Mars. Stepping into the shoes of every one of his heroes from James Brown to Earth, Wind and Fire, Mars is cut loose to deliver a virtuoso performance for the ages. It’s not so much what he says, although what he says is preposterously brilliant (“I’ll make a dragon want to retire man”) or his tone (although he is slicker than slick throughout), but his sheer braggadocio. “Uptown Funk” is utterly devoid of doubt and Mars is flawless from the first second he grabs the mic. He is rocking the house like the great performers of yesteryear – there is not a hair out of place and he never, not for one second, allows his facade to crack.

14. Drake – “Headlines” (2011)

Enter the decade’s premier hitmaker. Drake might not be the biggest individual seller of the 2010s (that would be Adele), but no artist has captured and shaped the sound of the past ten years quite like Toronto’s premier rap superstar. No matter how horrendous and hubristic a nadir Drizzy has sunk to in recent years with his bloated, boring and self-indulgent releases (every album from Views onwards) and craven attempts at commercial pandering (“Tootsie Slide”), there is no denying either the brilliance of his initial run of hits or his ability to tap into the cultural zeitgeist. Even his contemporary failures – his preposterously long LPs and Tik Tok cash ins – are born of a shrewd understanding of the market place, the power of algorithms and social media respectively. Drake is astute and in his pomp he was always riding the crest of a wave – be it the dancehall invasion (“One Dance”), meme culture (“Hotline Bling”), broody-but-tender R&B (“Hold On, We’re Going Home”) or the rise of sad-boy rap (every Drake album).

However, when picking the Drake track of the decade it’s hard to avoid going back to very beginning, to Take Care and a brilliant buoyant banger that, however implausibly, predicted every aspect of Drake’s rise and fall before he’d even really begun. “Headlines” rides squirrelly electronics and rampaging horns to create one of the most gloriously self-assured singles imaginable. Nine years later, this one track remains Drake’s ultimate flex. The moment when he practically warns the listening audience (correctly) that the world would be shaped in his image (“soap opera rappers, all these niggas sound like all my children”) even as he just barely begins to sketch out the fame-as-misery aesthetic that would become his signature (“I’ll be yelling out money over everything, money on my mind. Then she want to ask “when it got so empty?”, tell her I apologise it happened over time”).

Not only does “Headlines” capture Drake’s rise and fall with alarming accuracy, the track remains a stone cold banger to this day. Drake is at his most carefree and bombastic, weaving his rhymes with a bravura swagger – a reminder that if being Drake sounds like hard work in 2020, it used to feel utterly effortless, instinctual and joyous: “I might be too strung out compliments, overdosed on confidence. Started not to give a fuck and stopped fearing the consequence. Drinking every night, because we drink to my accomplishments”.

13. Bon Iver – “Holocene” (2011)

It’s lucky for us that Justin Vernon happens to frequent hipster bars in Portland, Oregon, because that is where the name “Holocene” comes from. Bon Iver would no doubt have released this tender reflection on the immateriality of human existence regardless, but holocene is truly the perfect name for a sublime moment of open-minded perspective shifting. Compared to the span of the earth’s life cycles, talking in terms of epochs, the human experience is minute. Failed romances, resplendent youths, even the tragedies of life and death mean nothing next to enduring mountains and our limitless horizon. In the grand scheme of things we are all minor biological footnotes in a longer, more sedately paced narrative. Vernon’s brilliance lies in his ability to summon both the beauty and breadth of the natural world (“I can see for miles, miles, miles”) and knotted ache of our interpersonal traumas (“you fucked it friend, it’s on its head, it’s stuck the street”). “Holocene” is as soothing and serene as the breeze itself and as torturous as the recurring thought that will not let you sleep at night. The immovability of nature is recast as both reassuring and devastating. This pain that haunts Vernon’s soul is really small and trifling in the grand scheme of things, but this knowledge does him absolutely no good in the present tense – if anything it makes him feel petty and pitiful. He understands the futility of existence even as he is overcome by a misery that no amount of perspective or natural beauty can abate.

12. Sia – “Chandelier” (2014)

It’s time to discuss one of this decade’s greatest anthems and I have very little to say. “Chandelier” is perfect pop. Talking about the song itself is redundant and somewhat nauseating. Why ruin a bulldozing, throat-shredding moment of divine release with useless words? “Chandelier” is the kind of pop song that kicks so hard and swings so ambitiously for the fences that it needs to be experienced – to be loved, hated and bellowed woefully out of tune – but not to be discussed. An extreme this severe should not be mitigated by such tedium. Why describe a force of nature, you’d be better served taking a picture of the wind, its farcical. Hear it, roar it aloud and feel that unmistakable swelling in your chest rise and curdle. “Chandelier” is pop born of bedroom insomnia and fuelled by a few confidence boosting beverages to stand screaming on top of the world.

Okay it is worth saying a little more about Sia’s career redefining hit – the song that moved her from songwriter-to-the-stars to stand alone superstar. “Chandelier” captures the tension that has always driven Sia’s best compositions. On the surface, Sia is a party girl revelling in hedonism “living like tomorrow doesn’t exist”, but rather than offering a true escape, her live free, party hard lifestyle is one elongated act of denial – an abdication of existence itself. As long as she is blind drunk, swinging from the “Chandelier” and being the life of every party, Sia never has to confront the distinctly unglamorous, go-nowhere mess that is her reality. Like the greatest hedonistic outpourings, “Chandelier” is underwritten by a darkness that continually creeps in at the corners and can only be repressed for so long.

11. Adele – “Rolling In The Deep” (2010)

Enter the biggest pop star in the world. The chart topper extraordinaire. The every-girl from Tottenham who outsold Beyonce, Gaga, Buble and all the rest. Adele’s music is so ubiquitous that she almost falls through the cracks as a popstar. There is universal agreement that she is fantastic vocalist, a phenomenal live performer and a hilarious, magnetic character whose albums more than deliver – and yet she’s rarely part of the cultural conversation. Of course, this is partly due to Adele’s down-to-earth and introspective personality. For years she was terrified of performing live and happy to live her private life away from the media glare. She might be a wonderfully gobby tell-all storyteller on stage, but the second she stepped off it she rarely craved attention.

Her music proved equally illusive. “Rolling In The Deep”, “Hello”, “Set Fire To The Rain” and “Someone Like You” were immaculate hits that blazed across the night sky, dominating the culture without truly interacting with the larger conversation. They were diamonds that dropped from a retro-futuristic skyline – strange artefacts that inspired awe and captured the world’s attention without truly changing the way anyone behaved. Adele was universally applauded for her lyrical candour, bulldozing vocal brilliance and the deft production of her biggest hits, but she sat apart from pop music. There was Adele and then there was everybody else.

This is shame as Adele is often robbed of the praise she deserves, because she is not Celine Dion making hits for a middle-aged niche. “Rolling In The Deep” was played everywhere – it proved as popular at indie and rock nights as it was on mainstream radio or in the supermarket aisles. Putting Adele’s glorious vocal performance and scathing lyric sheet to one side, it’s worth celebrating the sublime craftsmanship that went into creating “Rolling In The Deep”. The track is driven by a rapidly snowballing momentum. Each verse is driven by an uneasy, jabbing tempo that continually ramps up the tension as Adele swells towards a series of rampaging crescendos masquerading as choruses (disco rhythms are delicious reinterpreted through the then popular indie-folk revival to devastating effect). However, what makes “Rolling In The Deep” timeless is not its raw power and impetus, but its cheekiness. Remarkably, on this undeniably serious and grandstanding anthem, someone – be it Adele or Paul Epworth – decided to counterpoint Adele’s vocal onslaught with these gloriously camp falsetto backing vocals. Far from striping “Rolling In The Deep” of its potency, this injection of attitude and snappy humor gives the decade’s biggest hit some much needed swing and swagger. In one fell swoop, “Rolling In The Deep” was transformed from a radio hit into a dancefloor smash.

10. Gotye – “Somebody That I Used To Know” (2011)

So there is justice in this world. When it comes to pop music there is a horrible feeling that, in terms of worldwide chart success, it’s the novelty songs and pandering nonsense that gets plucked from obscurity and thrust into the lime-light. It has ever been thus and there is an appalling lineage (rapidly exacerbated by meme culture) that has led us through Las Ketchup and The Crazy Frog to the world of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” and Baby Shark. Thankfully, every once in the while a perfect song is plucked from obscurity – or in this case the Australian charts – and given a global platform. It matters little that Gotye couldn’t produce another single as totemic as “Somebody That I Used To Know”. It’s more romantic that his legacy (for the vast majority of music fans) is this one perfect offering and only those who chose to delve deeper will discover an intriguing back catalogue (in this sense Gotye is eerily reminiscent of White Town).

“Someone That I Used To Know” represents the wonderful marriage of a plinky-plonky, almost childlike arrangement with an ultra-pained and wounded vocal performance. Kimbra and Gotye are two lovers who’ve grown apart. Their relationship was built on genuine commitment, but the longer they stayed together, the greater pain they caused one another. Now a chilly distance and harsh break-up has seen both partners banished from each others lives. The brilliance of “Somebody That I Used To Know” lies in its duel narrative. Gotye paints a one-sided story in the first verse and, of course, comes across as deeply sympathetic, but Kimbra’s verse shows that both partners were, wholly unintentionally, causing the other deep psychological pain.

Full of haunting one liners (“told myself you were right for me, but felt so lonely in your company”, “had me believing it was always something that I’d done”), “Somebody That I Used To Know” is brought to life by its harrowing harmonies and the jarring quality of the central melody (as if their agony is jutting up out of their throats). Kimbra and Gotye’s vocal performances are perfectly pitched. They are fragile, awkward and yet resolute – the perfect post-break-up tone for two lovers picking at a fresh, barely scabbed over wound. Anything smoother or silkier would have ruined “Somebody That I Used To Know’s” immaculately observed and utterly resentful aesthetic.

9. Robyn – Dancing On My Own (2010)

Of all the emotions that true pop music was destined to capture, yearning is perhaps the most profound. This music of youth, of vigor, of sex and liberation has always been underwritten by disappointment: the party that someone else is having, the orgasm that you cannot quite achieve and the knowledge that you can’t always get what you want (let alone what you need). The marketing dream never quite matches up to reality. We head out trying to create these perfect moments: dressed to the nines, fuelled by liquor, dancing with our best friends to the most incredible music we’ve ever heard…only to have the girl or guy of our dreams ignore all our attempts to make eye contact. The tragedy and triumph of pop music’s self-made mythology can be found in Robyn’s heart-breaking refrain: “I’m giving it my all, but I’m not the guy your taking home”.

Ironically, Robyn would have her revenge on the brilliant “Call Your Girlfriend”, but for some reason, triumph cannot trump heartache. Great dance music exists in minor keys and “Dancing On My Own’s” power lies in its unwavering commitment. This should-be-tearjerker demands that its listeners dance. Robyn hasn’t constructed a song to be heard alone in bedrooms, instead “Dancing On My Own” surges and seethes atop a remorseless electronic beat. The dancefloor is recast from a place of joy to a field of unshakable warriors bleeding out in slow motion from a series of invisible wounds. Not deterred by failure, loneliness or anything resembling self-consciousness, they continue to dance, albeit with tears in their eyes. Hedonism and escapism are recast as bravery: the act of being dismissed, passed over and perpetually. rejected, contrasted with the refusal to submit. Robyn will return each and every night to throw her best shapes and live her best night, whether she is noticed or ignored.

8. Pusha T feat. Kendrick Lamar – “Nosestalgia” (2013)

Talk about a dream team, what could be better than the King of coke rap (Pusha T) joining forces with Compton’s conscience (Kendrick Lamar) to rap over one of Kanye West’s finest executive productions (Nottz deserves much of the credit for the beat however). Often dream collaborations underdeliver, largely because the rappers succumb to hubris and flex in an attempt to showcase their collective clout on a quick commercial cash-in. Push and K-Dot opted for the exact opposite approach. Over a murderously minimalist beat that oozes raw intimidation, Kendrick and Pusha decided to focus on narrative and construct a deeply personal cut that drew out the intersections between their respective styles and come-up journeys.

The result is a reflection on drug dealing and cocaine (well duh, this is a Pusha T song after all), but rather than having both men spit their most swaggering gangsta fantasy lines, the two rappers decide instead to dwell on the consequences of running drugs in a stunning two part narrative.

Pusha is the unrepentant high school dealer rocking a two tone jacket (i.e two beepers) turning his classmates into his drug mules and rolling in unheard of riches for a man his age. Far from a celebration, after some self-justification (“what I sell for pain in the hood, I’m a doctor”), Pusha goes on to detail the savage brutality of street life. Push makes it clear that you go through the motions of honoring your fallen gang members (“when a nigga die we add a link to the chain and scratch a nigga name in your chest”), but they are soon forgotten in a cycle of hedonistic ruthlessness (“once you delegate his bills, who gonna fuck his bitch the best?”). The brotherhood is a lie in this dog eat dog world where standing still gets you shot and killed.

Kendrick takes the the polar opposite approach. He’s stuck in the same cycle, but he’s not a dealer, he’s the son of addict who sells his toys, mistreats his family and lives life like a pathetic zombie. His childhood is derailed by the drugs that Pusha pushes. Kendrick is a lyrical whirlwind at the absolutely height of his powers transitioning from a blitzkrieg worldplay based around the syllable “ten” to the rage that overflows from his barely concealed contempt for his father. Kendrick’s only solution is to channel his rage into his artistry. He promises to save his family from poverty and addiction as much out of spite for his old man (and the broken system he represents) as for his own good.

“Nosestaglia” offers no chorus or hook, just pure horror. Kanye’s haunting beat resounds between the two scorched earth verses. There is no room for frivolity or chart concessions when the streets of Compton and NYC are bleeding out before our very eyes.

7. Lorde – “Liability” (2017)

Lorde certainly didn’t last long winding and grinding her way across the world’s dancefloors. The unsettling ghosts and nagging complexities she was outrunning on “Green Light” have tracked her down on “Liability”: a wounded and self-recriminating piano ballad. “I know that it’s exciting, running through the night/but every perfect summer’s eating me alive, until you’re gone” or, in other words, its time to face the cruelty hidden behind the hedonism (and sham relationships).

Out of the public glare the Kiwi stands naked and alone, mutilating her own self-constructed mythos. Lorde is a maelstrom who ruins human relationships (her words and those of her ex).  Her outward facing self is “a little much…a liability” – too severe, too intense, too wild, but in private she’s a study in fragility. The bravado and strength she so readily exuded on her 2013 debut has become a millstone weighing her down, wringing her neck and crippling her psyche.

There’s a lot to unpack here. “Liability” works fabulously when taken at face value. Lorde is being bent and broken by norms of society that have slowly become her own personal expectations. She plays at romance, but ends up alone (perhaps intentionally). She projects a brazen and cool facade, but is estranged – forming only superficial bonds with friends and lovers alike.

Metaphorically, she embraces the fear of being a flash in the pan. Is she merely a weekend lover no longer capable of holding our attention? Will the once strident starlet be rendered a pretender who burned too hot and too fast – soon to be forgotten? Will people still care for her when her distant and icy disdain is replaced by frail vulnerability? Lorde certainly seems to thinks so :

“The truth is: I’m a toy that everyone enjoys, till all of the tricks don’t work anymore. Then they are bored of me”.

The arrangement is hauntingly bare and daringly conventional. The focus lies on one stark image, that of a woman dancing at home alone, riddled with neurosis, her heart breaking. Labeled “poison” by her lover, rather than sounding a rebel yell: Lorde submits and crumbles. “Liability” is her damning indictment: a cruel self-diagnosis for a woman who inspires great ardour and greater lust, but no stability and little commitment (if that is what she even wanted or expected to begin with?).

“Liability” blends brutal metaphor with devilish feats of self-aggrandisement. For every withering assault on her own character, there’s a heroic image: the storm, the forest fire, the summer runner and the woman who dances with shadows. There are plenty of salacious whisper-spreading windows into Lorde’s private life, but what separates “Liability” from anything found on Pure Heroine is the simplicity of it all. The purity and weakness of the vocal and the unflinching directness of the lyric is paramount here. – not the posture and certainly not the production (and this is Lorde after all –  the popstar who made the cooler-than-thou outsider posture a teenage artform long before anyone had ever heard the name Billie Eilish)

Lorde was transforming before our very eyes: where once there stood an invincible totem of unabashed, unflappable youth, there now lied a crumpled body ready to be dissected.

6. Daft Punk – “Giorgio by Moroder” (2013)

Note: The blurb below is taken from my album of the decade entry for Random Access Memories. The piece is focused on, and concludes with, “Giorgio by Moroder” and perfectly captures my feelings about this tenderly observed and undeniably groovy love letter to the art of creating great, forward thinking dance music.

In the eight years between Human After All and Daft Punk’s stunning return to the fold, Random Access Memories, the world had shaped itself in the French androids’ image. Their Alive tour had inspired a generation of would be superstar DJs no longer content headlining big rooms in Ibiza. American driven EDM had obliterated the old genre of dance. Lazers, light shows, molly, festival fields and big, mind numbing drops were the order of the day. Daft Punk had done it, EDM artists were the new rockstars and the ultimate live experiences aped those halcyon and truly unforgettable nights when Daft Punk were on tour (and, as someone who was there, I can say their legendary live status is fully deserved).

Teasing the soon to be monstrous hit single “Get Lucky” at Coachella, it appeared that Daft Punk were ready to return and take a well earned victory lap. However, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo had no such intentions. In one of the most shocking and thrilling diversions in music history, Daft Punk turned their back on and turned their noses up (do robots have noses?) at the scene they had created.

Daft Punk would return, but with a brand new studio album and they would not tour. Rather than unleashing thudding synthetic slabs of sampled sound, the French duo were about to defy American EDM and pen a love letter to the dance music of old. Enlisting the support of disco icon Nile Rodgers, some fantastic live vocalists (Pharrell Williams, Julian Casblancas, Panda Bear) and the best studio artists, recording technology and engineering equipment known to man, Daft Punk set about writing a thoughtful, tender and deliciously groovy love letter to the lost art of music making. These robots always had soul, but Random Access Memories was more than a mere heartbreaking single (“Something About Us”) this was a life long love affair with music. Like Daft Punk’s best records, Random Access Memories alludes to the soft-rock sensibilities and disco sugariness of the 1970s, but isn’t truly evocative of any era or scene. Random Access Memories represents an imaginary nostalgia, a floating fantasy state of bad taste bliss and ice cool cybertronic grooves.

The album is a genuinely stunning accomplishment, both as a technical creation and in its hazy loving compositions, but it peaks on its front end. No album in the 2010s can hope to rival the moment when the serenely subdued and gorgeous “The Game Of Love” fades into “Giorgio by Moroder”. The latter is a true masterwork, the kind of track capable of bringing a tear to any music lover’s eye. Giorgio Moroder calmly talks the listener through the thrill of discovery, the moment when he experimented with Moog synthesizers and created the sound that would define a generation and continue to inspire electronic artists for decades to come. While Giorgio recounts his little tale of open-ended creation, Daft Punk are busy crafting a jaw-dropping nine minutes of subtly shifting sound that captures the joy of invention and artistic evolution from jazz through disco, house, hip hop scratching and onward into the digital age. It is quintessentially Daft Punk, but “Giorgio by Moroder” is so much more than just that, it is the very spirit of music making: a concise history and transformative journey into the new. In a beautiful twist, the track concludes by returning us to the genesis point, Giorgio’s click track. No song could possibly hope to follow it, let alone top it. The rest of Random Access Memories is merely excellent.

5.  Frank Ocean – “Thinkin Bout You” (2012)

“A tornado flew around my room before you came, excuse the mess it made it usually doesn’t rain in Southern California, much like Arizona. My eyes don’t shed tears, but boy they bawl when I’m thinking bout you”.

The words of the poignant and radically vulnerable verse that opens Frank Ocean’s album of the decadeChannel Orange. The young Frank Ocean is slipping between past and present tense as his thoughts linger on his first gay kiss. The first romantic dalliance that swept him off his feet, changed his perspective and scrambled his every assumption. The opening metaphor is perfectly pitched: a tornado has flown around Frank Ocean’s room. In the present tense he is the bumbling lovestruck teen sheepishly apologising for the state of his bedroom and trying to conceal his desperation in an attempt to seduce this cool young hunk. In retrospect that one fleeting kiss is a gale force storm that upends every aspect of his life. Where there was once order, disorder now stands and Frank will be forced to pick up the pieces and reconfigure his identity and fundamental sense of self.

Of course, this being a salacious and unexpected first kiss, Frank is in no position to employ any sense of rational distance. His blood is surging, his mind is racing and his imagination is running wild. He’s not thinking about today or tomorrow, he’s thinking about forever. In beautiful piece of songwriting dexterity Ocean deftly flits between now and then. His standoffish lover (“do you not think so far ahead?”) might not have the future on his mind, but the young Ocean is picturing and planning their lives together while, in the same breath, the older and wiser Frank acknowledges that, while the relationship may have proved fleeting, it’s impact rings enteral as a cherished and transformative memory. “I remember of course how could I forget, how you feel. You know you were my first time, a new feel. It won’t ever get old, not if my soul, not if my spirit keep it alive”.

To bring this pivotal moment of personal realisation to life Ocean summons a simple, but ungodly potent arrangement. Portentous strings give way to a dreamy wash of synths that softly shimmer and drift out of focus. Like a hypnotist’s loop or the sustained un-reality of ASMR, “Thinking Bout You” is a slow motion cascade: a velvet eruption, an ever-expanding ripple on the water’s surface. This hazy hinterland where the listener is left nothing solid or tangible to grasp is perfect for a narrative that slips so effortlessly into the figurative brushstrokes of romanticised memory. Ocean’s vocal performance is sublime, switching between the certainty of the storyteller to wavering falsetto of that young man knocked for six by a solitary kiss. Overcome by eagerness and imagination, he cannot maintain his grip on reality, let alone protect himself from heartbreak. Ocean is not thinking about today or tomorrow, he’s “been thinking bout forever”. “Thinkin Bout You” is simply one of the truest and most unguarded evocations of (and reflections upon) fast-blossoming young love ever committed to vinyl.

4. Lana Del Rey – “Fuck It I Love You / The Greatest” (2019)

Note: This might be something of a cheat, I was legitimately deciding between “Fuck It I Love You” and “The Greatest” for this one placement when I went to YouTube to give them a final listen and discovered that Lana had packaged them as a single double A-side offering. They are of course separate songs, but they do truly compliment one another bringing out the tragic themes of fractured romanticism and middle-aged malaise that came to define Norman Fucking Rockwell. 

“Fuck It I love You” is genuinely crushing. All the artifice and cinematic aloofness Lana has maintained across four albums comes crumbling down in a single sentiment: “I moved to California, but it’s just a state of mind/It turns out everywhere you go, you take yourself, it’s not a lie”. All those glorious American myths she’s been worshipping and intricately recreating are rendered worthless. There is no escape. The open road, the Californian sunset, shedding your identity and starting over – it’s all meaningless because no matter how fast you run, you cannot outrun yourself. Remarkably, this ego shattering revelation transforms itself into both an immaculate love song (or longing song) and, strangely, an ode to California (the same state whose myth she is rejecting). This is certainly a theme: the American myths may be completely baseless, but you can discover something vital about yourself by re-enacting these well worn rites of passage.

Lana is trying to process her alienation, loneliness and disappointment with life in the only terms she can understand: those of grand cinematic gestures. She’s a woman raised on romantic resolution, immaculately styled images and the myths of the American advertising industry. Reality is more mundane and so is she. Lana loves to layback, get stoned, drop out and wallow.  Rather than retreating inwards and dampening down her songcraft in a search of grit, she does the exact opposite: she writes songs of indecision, disappointment and regret as if the skyline were aflame and she were swaying in her lover’s arms on the edge of a rapidly dissolving world.

There should be a disconnect between reality and façade, subject and presentation, but the exact opposite is true. Norman Fucking Rockwell is a tone poem to the human condition and the admission that, ultimately, nothing is of greater importance than the war being waged inside our own heads. Lana is stuck with her run-of-the-mill woes (her lover has moved away, California isn’t what it promised to be and she’s all alone), but in her mind these personal problems are as dramatic as a slow motion shoot out, as destructive as the 2008 financial crash and as unsettling as the lingering threat of climate change. Lana is no longer trying to codify and recreate a great American mythology; she is elevating the nagging subconscious struggles we all have to endure to those exalted heights.

This is easier than done. Luckily, Lana finds herself in immaculate voice as she dreamily dances through a haunted landscape of regrets. On the sensuous and subdued cut, “The Greatest”, Lana starts with a simple proposition “I miss you, babe/I miss dancing with you the most of all” and allows that one thought to billow out into one of the great end-of-the-party anthems in music history. Lana inhabits those halcyon days of youth – the music, the bars, the beauty, the immediacy – but rather than finding solace and moving on as so many other artists have, she succumbs, but not to sorrow. Lana is casting off the shackles of maturity; she is tacitly embracing being a drop out as she coos: “I guess that I’m burned out after all/If this is it, I’m signing off/I miss doing nothing the most of all”. By simultaneously mourning and immortalizing the glories of her youth she’s created a monument to the listless ennui. She longs for the person she once was and will not apologise for it. She misses the feel and the thrill of New York, she misses the void and she misses being able to give herself wholeheartedly over to moment.

3. Beyonce – “Formation” (2016)

“Formation” was a brutal burial. The boring Beyonce who felt focus grouped, safe, inoffensive and perfectly poised between a pandering desire for both innovation and acceptability was being read her last rites. Truth be told, Beyonce had been on this path for a while. and Beyonce were fantastic albums that saw Bey moving towards the artistic fringe with throwback R&B (“1+1”) and carnal street level experimentation (“***Flawless”), but “Formation” was the explosion of raw braggadocio that launched Beyonce into the avant garde stratosphere. The Texan superstar had always been associated with empowerment anthems, but in the early 2010s Beyonce felt like the face of corporate #feminism – a “girl boss” more interested in marketing and accumulation than taking risks or upending the applecart. “Formation” was the moment when Beyonce dropped any pretence of politeness and rubbed her success,  her story and her unfiltered self in the world’s face. Less a structured narrative and more an onslaught of immortal flexes, Beyonce seemingly vibes from one instantly quotable line to the next “I might be a black Bill Gates in the making”, “if he fuck me good I’ll take his arse to red lobster”, “I might get your song played on the radio station”.

It felt like years of being analysed in the public eye, being discussed in relation to her husband, her label or her public image had caused the levy to break and turned Beyonce into a stone cold killer. Not only is Beyonce asserting herself as the most powerful tastemaker in the music industry, “Formation” simultaneously stands as imperious statement of love and pride for her very blackness and her upbringing. There first “verse”, for the lack of a better description, stands as one of the most powerful, direct and truly positive statements on race and black beauty in this decade – one that will likely endure long after our contemporaneous debates are settled: “my daddy Alabama, my ma Louisiana, you mix that negro with that creole make a Texas ‘bama. I like my baby hair with baby hair and afro, I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils. Earned all this money, but they’ll never take the country off me, I got hot sauce in my bag, swag”. The mundane ordinariness of Beyonce check list of beauty and aspirations is the point: she is representing a vision of superstardom, but she is unequivocally rejecting the idea of filtering her blackness – from natural hair to a cheeky bottle of hot sauce in her designer handbag, Beyonce is bringing the culture of the streets to the pinnacle of mainstream acceptability.

“Formation” is such an unrepentant onslaught of braggadocio and street-level southern swagger that it’s easy to focus on Beyonce’s performance and overlook how out of this world the arrangement truly is. Mike Will Made It is at the absolutely peak of his powers as he delivers a hauntingly vacant trap banger built on an alien accordion-like squelch. The beat slaps ungodly hard, but even four years later, after some of the most surreal electronic experimentation imaginable entering club rotation (think JPEGMAFIA), “Formation” still sounds otherworldly when its dropped in the mix. “Formation” remains the biggest and strangest ubiquitous pop hit of this (or possibly any) era.

Beyonce’s late career breakthrough can be contextualised in the the wake of Rihanna’s Anti and Kendrick Lamar’s reorientation of hip hop’s politics, but “Formation” sounds utterly singular. The second that first crooked, lingering, spring-in-lieu of a beat kicks in, “Formation” transports the listener to another plane of existence. No amount of radio play, widely discussed cultural significance or base level familiarity blunts the surreal otherness of the composition. “Formation” remains perma-fresh. The kind of culture defining statement that is utterly and undeniably specific to its moment in time, but that stands proudly alone and detached from any trends or sonic ticks that might date or diminish its impact. “Formation” slaps hard, strides triumphant and shows no signs of slowing down. It is the perfect song of the 2010s: “Formation” speaks profoundly to the pop cultural moment without being slave to its conventions.

2. Kendrick Lamar ft. MC eiht – “M.A.A.D. City” (2012)

It’s time to introduce “Kendrick, aka Compton’s human sacrifice…an angel on angel dust”. “M.A.A.D. City” is more than a tour de force. It is not merely bravura rampage through the streets that defined and defiled Kendrick Lamar’s youth, it is a seething and relentless assault – this is the sound of teenage Kenny being suffocated and strangled by the unrelenting pressure of Compton’s street culture. “M.A.A.D. City” is rap’s answer to Darren Arranofsky’s Requiem For A Dream or the Sadfie Brothers most claustrophobic thriller – Uncut Gems feels like a pleasant stroll through New York City compared to Kendrick’s Compton. However, just like those horrific, unnerving and unflinching cinematic works, Kendrick Lamar isn’t presenting the “M.A.A.D. City” as a brutal outlier (something to shock and abhor), instead Kendrick is a product of this maelstrom of murder, addiction, overdoses and gang signs – to him it is normal and mundane. The stabbing strings and syllables sprayed like sub machine-gun fire might be terrifying and psyche destroying, but this is Kendrick’s normal. He sees family members die, he scrapes together money to both pay his taxes and to ensure that he, his mother and his brothers can afford hospital treatment should they be shot, stabbed or poisoned.

Kendrick sleeps with a gun under his pillow and he admits to running the streets terrorising his enemies, its how he survived and he will not offer his listeners the easy way out. He wasn’t a good guy, he was never above it: if we empathize with him, then we must empathize with a gang banger. In a stunning final flourish he turns his gaze (or aim) upon his audience and bluntly speaks to camera: “If I told you I killed a nigga at sixteen, would you believe me? Percieve me to be innocent Kendrick you seen in the streets with a basketball and some Now and Laters to eat? If I mentioned all of my skeletons, would you jump in the seat? Would you say my intelligence is great relief? and It’s safe to say that our next generation maybe can sleep with dreams of being a lawyer or doctor instead of a boy with a chopper that hold the cup-d-sac hostage

This harrowing and confrontational moment is hard earned after three blitzkrieg verses whose virtuosity and rap-along brilliance is only rivalled by the unremittingly bleak content of the lyrics themselves. The greatest hip hop hook of the 2010s is nightmarishly unpleasant: the image of Kendrick Lamar running for his life because of what he just revealed – “if Pirus and Crips all got along, they’d probably gun me down by the end of the song”. Kendrick is snitching on an entire culture. “M.A.A.D. Kid” lays out one of this nation’s great tragedies in unmistakable detail, starting with a childhood murder: “Seen a light-skinned nigga with brains blown out at the same burger stand where *bleep* hang out. Now this is not a tape recorder saying that he did it, but ever since that day, I was looking at him different – that was back when I was nine, Joey packed the nine”.

Kendrick quickly becomes a teenage tearaway. His father demands he gets a regular job, with predictably disastrous results: “My pops said I needed a job, I thought I believed him. Security guard for a month…I got fired, ’cause I was inspired by all of my friends to stage a robbery the third Saturday I clocked in”. Even an attempt to escape the insanity of the streets by falling into the pillowy embrace of narcotics leads to disaster. His first cocaine laced blunt leaves Kendrick paralysed and foaming at the mouth, rather than scaring him off, the pain-relief is worth the risk and all these years later he’ll still turn to weed or alcohol when he feels the need to dwell on the trauma of his childhood.

There is no escape. The one potential reprieve (drugs) only exacerbates the issue and intensifies the street level violence. Except, of course, Kendrick did make it out of Compton. He is a superstar rapper. In fact, he is the superstar rapper of this generation, but he is still a product of those brutal streets – a haunted man, just another angel on angel dust. It is to Kendrick’s immense credit that his modern day nightmare is transformed into one of the great flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants anthems of this or any generation. “M.A.A.D. City” is a seminal cut, a club classic, a festival anthem and an undeniable banger – it also just so happens to be a ungodly powerful social critique and the work of a wounded and vulnerable singer songwriter. Kendrick has achieved the impossible: he has turned the detail orientated confessional into broad brush stroke anthem that festival fans can bellow with verses that kids across the world will commit to memory. “M.A.A.D City” should easily be the song of the decade – it’s four different classic pop archetypes executed in a single breath without even a hint of contrivance – Kendrick is a heartbreak away from running the entire gambit of pop history in a single harrowing onslaught.

Fittingly, this towering tale of brutality and bitterness ends not with a catchy hook, clever one liner or artful composed lament, but with another dose of crushing street level reality. Kendrick is yanked out of his reverie when an old friend snatches the bottle from his hands, demands he get out of his feelings,  toughen up and have some fun. In an instant, Kendrick Lamar is transformed into another young man, albeit a millionaire, told to suck it up and suppress – it’s no wonder Compton’s streets are fucked.

1. Kanye West – “Runaway”/”Ultralight Beam” (2010/16)

Sue me, I simply couldn’t decide between the two polar extremes of Kanye West’s artistry: the self-pitying nadir and the moment of heavenly repentance in the wake of a tragedy that shook world. Both “Runaway” and “Ultralight Beam” capture Kanye at the absolute peak of his powers creating ornate and contorted cathedrals of sound that feel lightyears ahead of their time, let alone their peers. Kanye’s hubristic nature may have eaten him alive (transforming the once revered artist into an ungainly public spectacle careening from one flaming car crash to the next as he struggles to cope with his bi-polar disorder under the gaze of paparazzi), but it is this lack of a filter and craven ambition that allows West to produce masterworks that few artist could ever hope to touch.

“Runaway” will always be West’s pinnacle: the exact intersection of his most visionary artistry and the absolute peak of his fame. There’s plenty of insults that can be thrown Kanye’s way. He’s certainly pig-headed, crass, callous, self-centred and devoid of anything resembling inhibitions, but he cannot be accused of being oblivious. Kanye’s work – post-808s and Heartbreak, where the focus switched from society at large to West’s own headspace – has been defined by his willingness to confront his own undeniable awfulness. He is a psychotic mess who plunges his family and loved ones from one self-constructed catastrophe to the next. He is impetuous in the extreme. Drawn to bad women and worse situations, he has risen to stratosphere where his every whim, wish and want can be actualised and satisfied. Fittingly then, the one area where his reckless behaviour cannot be papered over (his relationships) keep coming back to haunt him.

On the sumptuous and chilling “Runaway” – driven by soaring, stabbing strings, synthetic sludge, torturously contorted auto-tune and those unforgettably stark and stinging piano keys – Kanye faces reality and comes to terms with who and what he really is: an absolute arsehole, albeit a well meaning one. The kind of guy who “sends a bitch a picture of [his] dick” in lieu of seduction and papers over cracks in a relationship with million dollar trinkets. The kind of undeveloped and wounded young man whose success has ensured that he has never had to cope with the compromises and turmoil of real relationships. He is both “young, rich and tasteless” as Pusha-T puts it and emotionally stunted: “never was much of romantic, I could never take the intimacy and I know it did damage, because the look in your eyes is killing me… I don’t know how I’m gonna manage if one day you just up and leave”.

Kanye West is an arsehole and it’s time for his toast to the pathetic nature of his emotional dependency and his inability to return the strength and commitment that he prays upon. “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags, let’s have a toast for arseholes, let’s have a toast for scumbags…baby I got a plan, runaway as fast as you can”. That is the ultimate realization, the moment when the music stops and the knife twists in the form of a single piano key – the one piece of advice he can offer a would-be-lover is to run away as far and as fast as they possible can. He is a live destroying leach who should be left alone with his blood curdling neurosis and contorted pysche – which is artfully brought to life by those staggered strings and the mutilation/slow decay of Kanye’s autotuned vocal. “Runaway” is grotesquely beautiful.

By the time “Ultralight Beam” rolled around, Kanye West was barely a protagonist. He’d recast himself as bit part player: a small, almost irrelevant man overwhelmed by tragedies both personal (the death of his mother) and communal (the brutal terrorist attack on the Bataclan). Fittingly Kanye still manages to make it all about himself even as he stands side of stage. He is drowning in the glare of flashbulbs and suffocating in the abundance of oxygen media attention affords. He constantly makes the worst possible decisions and showcases his most loathsome impulses to world – his response? To forge an incandescent pillar of strength that he can cling onto to dear life. West is barely present. He mumbles penitent and shrouded in despair (“I’m tryna keep my faith, but I’m looking for more”) on the intro, struggling to reconcile his sense of self as he sees the world being ripped asunder around him (“pray for Paris, pray from the parents”).

Next to the unfocused smallness and soft well wishes that Kanye manages to muster stands the totemic certainty and immovability of his faith. The second the choir kicks in Kanye is simultaneously elevated and brushed aside by something bigger, more powerful and more permanent. The choir’s vocals surge, swell, soar and strike like a weaponised beam of light designed to exorcize all sorrow, self-doubt or darkness. Kanye and his team of super-producers are careful to balance this injection of purity against the slowly lurching synthetic misery of the base-level arrangement. The result is not an angelic battle on a Miltonian scale, but rather a perpetual juxtaposition. The emergence of a guiding and naturalistic light capable of bursting through the depressive drudgery that is daily existence.

The-Dream and Kelly Price’s vocal performances are sublimely pitched and provide resounding moral appeals, but Chance The Rapper is the star of the show – this is the moment the perma-smiling soul of Chicago was always destined to inhabit. Employing his broadest grin alongside his most carefree rhyme scheme and childlike bars, Chance, a rapper defined by his faith, taps into a deep wellspring of optimism that captures the spirit of overcoming self-doubt and societal expectation. In a wild see-sawing freestyle-esque verse his subject matter veers wildly, but the message is simple: be yourself, be true and don’t crumble in the face of temptation. Tapping into personal experience Chance, speaking directly Kanye, explains how he’s resisted the demands the outsider world has placed upon him at each and every turn: “Tying to snap photos of familia, my daughter is just like Sia, you can’t see her…I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the grammy? Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard that there ain’t no gosh darn part you can’t tweet”.

“Ultralight Beam” is not “Runaway’s” redemption. It’s far too late for that. Kanye West can never be as free as Chance The Rapper. He’s already fallen: he has too much baggage, he’s too easily lured away from the path of righteousness, but “Ultralight Beam” is a haunting and beautiful reminder that even the most gargoylish of psyches can still turn toward the light. Kanye will fall and fall again, but the “Ultralight Beam” will always on hand to irradiate the darkness and provide him solace, no matter how fleeting or short lived his conversion may be.


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